Dr Adrian Rainbow, Deputy Head (Co-curriculum) of Sevenoaks School, describes how the whole person education philosophy is applied there and the benefits pupils – and society – enjoy from it
We live in precarious times: climate change, species extinction, tariff wars, the impact of Artificial Intelligence and the threat of a global economic depression, to mention just a few. So it’s easy to understand doomsayers claiming that humans are on a dangerous trajectory and that our children will inherit a damaged world, rife with uncertainty. But this does not have to be the dominant narrative.
By equipping young people with the skills to think critically, creatively and collaboratively within an educational model predicated on character, resilience, leadership, social responsibility and liberal internationalism, our young people will possess the resources to re-write this narrative. This is the power of educating the whole person.
At Sevenoaks School we firmly believe in such holistic education. Our interdisciplinary approach focuses on the interconnections and intersections between academic, pastoral, and co-curricular programmes. We believe each one is equally important and pivotal in enabling us to nurture our students so that they can flourish and achieve their potential.
Although our students achieve exceptional exam results, this is not our main objective; indeed, our high academic results are in some ways ironically a result on our focus on all of the learning our students are doing outside of the academic curriculum.
Content knowledge is important and academic achievement is the cornerstone of everything we do. Like all schools, we recognise that our students need to achieve high grades to get into their choice of university and secure a job that is right for them.
So, although we have reduced the amount of internal exams we set at Sevenoaks, we ensure our pupils are prepared for national exams through a diverse and creative academic curriculum, with teaching and learning practices based on inspiring curiosity, enquiry and a love of learning.
It is clear, though, that education should not be about just exam results and there is much current pedagogical discourse about the purpose of education and what schools should be doing to enhance the character of the student beyond the context of formal lessons.
This is where the co-curriculum programme, or experiential learning outside the classroom, can be so valuable. At Sevenoaks School we are fortunate to be able to offer an array of activities that develop these soft skills, through sport, music, drama, CCF, Duke of Edinburgh and the many varied clubs and societies on offer to our students.
Through these activities students learn skills such as creativity, collaboration, leadership, teamwork, resilience, problem solving, confidence, communication skills and emotional intelligence, to name a few. In these activities they are pushed out of their comfort zone, learn how to assess risk and, most importantly, how to fail and how to recover from failure.
This is one of the key areas where we can help our students to develop a ‘Growth Mindset’ – and these lessons learned outside of the classroom equip students with the ability to flourish inside it.
This holistic education extends further to pastoral support and any form of progressive education now looks at student wellbeing very seriously. The demands of any school can be very challenging for young people and educators have a duty to provide top quality pastoral support whereby students feel cared for, supported and nurtured at all times. The happiness of the young people in our care is always paramount and mental wellbeing must never be sacrificed for exam results.
“Any form of progressive education now looks at student wellbeing very seriously”
Students need to be offered platforms to develop their inner confidence, self-efficacy, and what some educators are calling ‘identity achievement’. Young people should be provided with a toolkit whereby they are able to self-reflect, to increase their self-awareness, and manage their own stress in order to function well and be prepared for their next step in life.
Thus, a robust supplementary programme, such as PSHE (covering personal, social, health and economic issues) and anything else related to mental wellbeing, is essential. Time and energy spent outside the academic classroom on strategies pertaining to wellbeing, is well spent to develop the whole person – and will also strengthen academic outcomes. A happy, confident and self-aware learner is a productive learner.
Lastly, the other area often overlooked in an education system that focuses too much on exams and material certificates is the need for students to engage with community, whether this be local, national or international.
Much of the above discussion on educating the whole person focuses on the individual and how students can become empowered and flourish independently. A necessary component of a holistic education, however, and one that we believe in fervently at Sevenoaks School, is the need for our young people to look beyond their own sense of self towards community engagement and service.
Although sometimes students might not immediately recognise the value of volunteering in the community it is clear that educating them to give to others develops their empathic skills, a sense of compassion, understanding and respect for others, and a sense that we are all inextricably linked.
In today’s competitive market for university places and future jobs, it is understandable that schools feel compelled to focus extensively on academic results, but ultimately, the purpose of education is not rote learning, league tables, and exam grades.
And once we look at holistic education more closely, it is clear that academic rigour and the experiences students engage in outside the academic curriculum are not mutually exclusive endeavours. Indeed, this is a false dichotomy and why educators should invest heavily in the other aspects of education that enhance the whole person, and simultaneously benefit society.
This will empower students to be their optimal selves, prepare them for the uncertainties of the future, and equip them with skills to enact positive change in the world.
Educating the whole person is complex and diverse, but it is essential to provide our young people with the best opportunities in life, as well as for our future generations to find solutions to the problems they will face.
Exams matter, but everything else a student can learn in school matters so much more.
Essential strategies for educating the whole person
- Creative and innovative approaches to teaching and learning
- Excellent learning opportunities outside the classroom
- A focus on character and resilience
- A robust pastoral support system, based on compassion and kindness
- Strategies for students to self-reflect, increase self-awareness and manage their own stress
- Opportunities to develop empathy, connect with others and give back to society
- A sense of social responsibility and international-mindedness
Sevenoaks School, Kent 01732 455133
The new Science and Technology Centre at Sevenoaks School
Exams matter, but everything else a student can learn in school matters so much more
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